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Sunday, March 7, 2010

A Concert of Spectral Music

On Friday evening March 5th, 2010 the sounds of Spectral Music could be heard at Boston University's Marsh Chapel. That's where the Xanthos Ensemble presented a program featuring music of four composers whom - each in their own way - represent a unique approach to this still emerging movement of contemporary musical composition.

Spectral music is a hard to define. The term was coined by the French composer/philosopher Hugues Dufourt. Dufourt used his term Spectral music in an article published in the early 1980s, and the label caught on. The Spectral music movement has evolved into a bona fide musical trend. It has functioned as an aesthetic school of thought since the late 1980s.

Composers working in this methodology typically embrace the framework of a generalized musical approach rather than a specific style or "ism." Spectral music does not espouse any particular technique, but rather is passionately indicative of working methods that are rooted deeply in current scientific research, psychoacoustic theory, as well as digital sound analysis and synthesis.

Today, Spectral music - at least in the United States, is still a sub-genre of the overall mainstream new music scene. Practitioners of this art form appear to be united, organized, and well-placed. They seem to have plenty to talk about, and easily quote from scientific studies or cite from memory passages of Hermann von Helmholtz's classic treatise On the Sensations of Tone.

It seems at times as if they view musical instruments as sound generating devices that can be scientifically manipulated to realize interesting and novel spectral patterns. In their world, cellos and pianos function as hardware that can be called up to execute the coded instructions of their creative software.

The Spectral music concept has some merit. Many important discoveries about the nature of sound have emerged in recent decades. Scientific resources and acoustical data are more available to composers today than ever before in history. With the help of ubiquitous software programs for spectral analysis, composers can study sounds, and then re-generate those very specific overtones in a musical work using a combination of traditional instruments and extended performance techniques (such as wind instrument multiphonics and microtonality).

Composers working in this discipline could in theory make a cello sound like a screaming chicken, or replicate the hum and buzz of a modern factory - using only traditional musical instruments as their sound generation equipment.

But rock solid technique does not automatically translate into a viable artistic movement. Does Spectral music have feet to walk on?

It seems to me that the relative success of the Spectral music movement has more to do with filling a void. The public's desire to move on from the staid and entrenched (albeit broadly misunderstood) period of musical exploration that dominated the 1950s and 60s could have been fulfilled by any "ism." According to Wikipedia...

Spectral music represented an alternative to the prestige of the serialists and post-serialists as the vanguard of serious musical composition and compositional technique.

In the mid-1980s, Spectral music was new, cool, and very European. It engendered an aesthetic predominance practiced by a slew of followers led and inspired by the French composer-conductor Pierre Boulez. They were a new generation of composers, theorists, scientists and technicians who worked at the famed research institute in Paris known as IRCAM.

Perhaps too Spectral music replaced Serialism as the latest nexus between musical and scientific thought. It became a space for composers to exercise their proclivities of rational thinking and scientific method in service of their more primitive musical instincts. It allows composers to "bang on a can" while at the same time rationalizing the sound using a host of convincing algorithms, formulas, and/or spectral diagrams.

Spectral music seems to play by a slightly different set of rules than traditional modernist music. It avoids traditional notions of form. Pitch and melody tend to function secondarily to the parameter of timbre. Spectral music is obsessed with the micro-events of acoustical phenomenon over the role of traditional musical narrative and development.

I did not follow the progress of Spectral music too closely when it hit the music scene with a vengeance in the 80s and 90s. So, as you can imagine, I was interested to hear a concert dedicated to this musical genre. The Xanthos concert was an opportunity to hear four mature pieces by skilled composers working in this specialized field for some time.

The composers Xanthos Ensemble program were Tristan Murail (b. 1947), Ronald Bruce Smith, Joshua Fineberg (b. 1969), and Gérard Grisey (1946-1998). Murail and Grisey are two names closely associated with this movement.

The first work, "Seven Lakes Drive" (2006) by Tristan Murail was for flute, clarinet, horn, piano, violin, and violoncello. According to the composers' program notes, "The material of the piece is built on the natural resonances of the French horn and the piano." I noticed that the cello often played in the stratosphere, in a register well above the violin. The French horn explored the overtone series, and much of the music resonated in the piano's open shell.

The second work on the program was a Boston premiere by the Canadian composer Ronald Bruce Smith. He is currently on the faculty at Northeastern University. His piece Remembrances of a Garden is inspired by paintings and concepts found in painting - namely Paul Klee and Claude Monet. The work is scored for flute/piccolo, clarinet/bass clarinet, percussion, piano, violin, and violoncello. Remembrances of a Garden is a formative work, full of rich detail and interesting sonic occurrences. It presented well in the acoustical space of Marsh Chapel.

Joshua Fineberg
's Veils for solo piano was a real discovery. The shimmering sounds of the piano filled the air with vivid colors, vibration, and a blanket of interesting musical objects flowing through time. The composer wrote in his program notes, "It is not the notes (or not only the notes) which draw me to the piano; rather, for me, the real magic of the piano is its resonance." For me, Veils makes a convincing argument in favor of timbre over pitch. Eunyoung Kim was impressive and commanding at the piano, attacking the keyboard at times with Zen-like force and an intuitive conviction about the notes. She can make the piano sing, like a chorus of 10 thousand voices.

The concert ended with a Spectral music classic, Talea by Gérard Grisey. Grisey died in 1998 at the age of 52, so we will never know where the trajectory of his music development would have eventually led. But his work Talea (1986) seemed rather traditional to me in many ways. It contains a primary motif in the form of a well defined (but not-pitch specific) gesture. That central idea is developed and transformed in ways that remind us of music of the past. That's not so revolutionary!

The musicians of the Xanthos Ensemble met and exceeded my already high expectations of this Boston-based new music sensation. They played with grace and panache. Joanna Goldstein (flute), Alexis Lanz (clarinet), Brenda van der Merwe (violin and viola), Leo Eguchi (cello), Joseph Walker (French horn), Eunyoung Kim (piano), and George Nickson (percussion) were directed by conductor Jeffrey Means.

A nice reception followed the concert. Most of the Boston University music department composition faculty were there in force.

I look forward to hearing what the Xanthos Ensemble dreams up for concerts in the future. They are the real deal.

Xanthos Ensemble
Presented by the Boston University College of Fine Arts - School of Music
Marsh Chapel, Boston University
March 5th, 2010